Who are they in Pamirs afraid of?

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Who are they in Pamirs afraid of?

In Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region (GBAO), the Tajik and Chinese troops liquidated hypothetical terrorist groups, which, according to legend, had entered Ishkashim region from Afghanistan. The drills were held on August 12-16 at the Jelondi military training area in the Shughnon District as part of the joint exercises of the two countries' militaries. Local mid- and top-level officials of the GBAO, including the heads of all regions of the district, were also put into the field.

Gorno-Badakhshan was turned into a war zone for several days. Helicopters were circling over the capital of GBAO - Khorugh. Explosions thundered at the Jelondi military training area, filled with artillery guns, aircraft, tanks and armored personnel carriers. A military camp for 1200 soldiers and officers was set up near the village of Dzheloni in the Shughnon District (Eastern Pamirs in the direction of Murghab). Of these, 620 were Tajik troops, the remaining 580 were soldiers and officers of the Western Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army of China.

These are the third military exercises of the Tajik and Chinese armies in recent times. Similar exercises that involved nearly 10,000 troops were held in Ishkashim in October 2016. A year earlier, in June 2015, 250 members of the Tajik special forces unit and China's Ministry of Public Security, special forces of the two countries rehearsed an attack of hypothetical terrorists entering from Afghanistan.

Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman Orif Nozimzoda told RFE/RL that this time "the military units deployed in Badakhshan, which directly borders with Afghanistan, held exercises." According to him, the joint Tajik-Chinese military exercises were held against the backdrop of a turbulent situation in Afghanistan's Badakhshan. Taliban groups have been controlling several counties of this province for several years, and although there have not yet been attempts to break into Tajik territory, the countries of the region consider the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border to be dangerous.

Further information indicates that there are Uyghur separatists among terrorist and extremist groups on the territory of Afghanistan's Badakhshan that pose a threat to China.

According to experts, the situation in Tajikistan directly affects China’s national security and affects the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. If so far there have been minor skirmishes and minor violations on the Afghan-Tajik border, then with the activation of the Taliban movement (banned in Russia), the situation may change. The Taliban are ardent opponents of the radical extremist group ISIS (banned in Russia). The Taliban do not plan to expand their activities outside the borders with the Central Asian republics, but it is possible that they will not tolerate ISIS and other militants on their territory. It is clear where these groups will try to transfer their bases under the pressure of the Taliban. While they only put the Tajik and Turkmen borders for test, smuggling drugs across them. But that's for now. And Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan is a direct road to China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region with all that it implies for China's security.

Beijing agreed with Dushanbe on a joint fight against terrorism. In 2016, China-Tajikistan agreement was signed which provides for the construction of eleven Tajik outposts and a training center for Tajik border guards by the Chinese authorities. In addition, Beijing was given rights to refurbish or build up to 30 to 40 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country's border with Afghanistan. China will equip and maintain these facilities, with Tajik personnel serving there.

Nevertheless, local experts claim that there is a Chinese military base in Murghab, and that the Afghan border is guarded by the Chinese border patrol. "There is a new border checkpoint in Ishkashim - the Chinese one. There is an accumulation of military equipment and soldiers in the region, and not only of the Tajik army, but also of the Chinese one. People in Khorugh are worried whether the military will leave the Pamirs after completion of the drills, or the Chinese military will take control of the Tajik-Afghan border. The rumors are not groundless, since China has an economic interest in GBAO, and Beijing intends to defend it," expert from GBAO Azim Maradov told Vestnik Kavkaza.

Chinese expert Sheng Siyu has denied rumors that a Chinese base was established in the Pamirs. Indeed, there are objects in Murghab operated by specialists and employees of the civil engineering department of China Militia (the irregular part of the Chinese People's Liberation Army), namely from those units that are stationed in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In particular, three commandant's offices, five border checkpoints, five posts and one training center were stationed in Murghab. All this has been built with Chinese money. Most of the instructors in the training center are Chinese. But it is not a military base, but rather a border control center, which was established with the consent of Moscow, and its activities are supported by Russia.

Doctor of Law Shokir Hakimov told Vestnik Kavkaza that within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, there are some bilateral regulatory documents between Tajikistan and China, relating to combating corruption, terrorism and religious extremism. "According to the Chinese political leadership, there is a danger posed by political Islam. Therefore, China has decided to conduct such exercises and finance them, since Tajikistan has no money for it," the Tajik expert noted. In his opinion, there is a second point - an economic one. China is concerned about the unstable situation on the borders and in Tajikistan itself. China is afraid for its assets in Tajikistan. Beijing is a top performer in the structure of investment policy of Tajikistan, including its fiscal policy, both official and unofficial. When investing in Tajikistan, China must be confident in the safety of its investments.

Tajikistan is concerned that the republic may lose its lands if the financial and financial obligations are not fulfilled. There is a precedent for it. Dushanbe handed over the Upper Kumarg deposit in Sughd region to Beijing to repay the debt that was needed to upgrade the Dushanbe-2 thermal power station. China's ТВЕА will develop the mine. Earlier, this company has already gained access to the Eastern Duoba deposit. According to the Central Geological Administration at the Government of Tajikistan, the Chinese company will produce gold in the deposits until it returns the funds invested in the construction of the Dushanbe-2 thermal power station, and then a new agreement on new terms will be signed.

Tajikistan was one of the first in Central Asia to start borrowing loans and grants offered by Beijing. China grants Tajikistan cheap loans on preferential terms for long periods of time, from 20 years and more. Amid the inaccessibility of liquid Russian and Western financial resources, Chinese offers have virtually no alternative. The Tajik authorities no longer hide that they have found a more profitable economic partner in the person of Beijing than Moscow. That's why it's easier for China to gain access to the Tajik assets than for Russia.

"Under international law, this may result in a restriction on sovereignty, and then in loss of independence. We must preserve the country's integrity. There should be a limit of permissible action to counteract various forms of extremism and terrorism, including political Islam. This should not interfere with the formation of civil society, the development of political pluralism and a multi-party system," Shokir Khakimov stressed.

According to him, there are also deposits in Gorno-Badakhshan that have been transferred to China for a long time. Their use regime is quite closed. China has controlled the entire Tajik economy, and now also its military-political sphere.